In the age of the digital camera, it might seem like a pretty far off time when film didn’t just exist, but it was the only means of recording daily life. People spent their hard earned money to acquire the latest camera and rolls of film and chemistry. There wasn’t “instant gratification” in the process but the process was an art form in of itself. Once someone had a camera they would load it with the film, or plates, and carefully capture the images of their lives. This process was limited to the number of exposures on a roll, which in the early days wasn’t very many (or the very early days only one image at a time).
So there was a process, a relationship, between the photographer and the film camera. But what happened to all these cameras? Some of them were destroyed by the elements, left forgotten in sheds, garages, basements, and attics. Some were passed down as heirlooms through families inspiring the next generation of photographers. Some ended up lost to the advances of technology, ultimately landing in antique stores, junk stores, and flea markets with the possibility of a new life with each passer by.
So this brings me to my story. I am bit of historical photography enthusiast (to say the least). I LOVE old cameras, old photographs, and basically anything photography from the late 1800s-early 1900s. I browse the antique stores, flea markets, and thrift shops looking for the next piece of history in photographic form that I can learn a little from.
A few weeks ago, I was browsing on eBay. I like to look at cameras that have bellows because a lot of times they are pretty old and from the turn of the century. There is just something so incredibly beautiful to me about the wood of the camera next to the leather bellows, and brass lenses. So I happened upon this camera, that from the photo I could tell was a bellows camera. I suspected from the photos that seller couldn’t figure out how to open the camera because there were several photos but none of the camera actually open. For $3, I figured I was willing to take a risk and buy the camera. If nothing else it could be a cool piece of an art project.
So the camera arrived looking a lot like the photos I had seen online.
Not much to study, except some nice patina and a Kodak stand.One of the sides was broken so I knew the back would be a bit tricky to get off. So I started with the front. I got a pretty beautiful surprise when I opened up my camera.
It was a beautiful, early 1900s Kodak No 3-A camera. It is slightly ironic to someone of the 21st century that this camera is described as a “pocket camera” but in its heyday this camera would have been a lot smaller than its predecessors. The shutter fires perfectly, the bellows are in almost mint condition, so in my book for $3 this was a deal!
After admiring the beauty of the craftsmanship of the camera, I decided to work on getting the back of the camera off. I am not sure why, maybe it’s just the curiosity in me, but I love taking apart a camera. I think it just amazes me to see how its all put together. I finally managed to get the back off and I was pretty surprised at what I found.
There are several signatures/addresses written in pencil inside the back panel of camera. They were all from different locations-one from Jeff, Indiana:
Another from Louisville, Kentucky:
And the third in Montreal, Canada:
There are also some other unusual things in the writing including personal addresses, $20.00 (or possibly $2000), 7-1-12 (I am assuming to be a date).
I am still sleuthing to try figure out who the former owner of this camera might have been. It could just be regular person who liked to take family photos, or maybe it was a professional photographer who used this camera as their livelihood. Whatever the case, this camera has had a very interesting life possibly traveling between countries throughout time and owners.
It is the first time I have ever found writing inside a camera. I have found names on the outside of cameras and cases before. Sometimes you even find a roll of undeveloped film inside, but this experience is entirely new to me.
It’s strange to think, but each of these film cameras we see has been a part of history. Whether it was recording a family’s vacations, or documenting news stories, photography has played a pretty important role history.
It seems kind of like fate that the camera ended up with me. I am always looking for a new photographic mystery, curious to learn a little history in the process. So this is my new mystery, learning a little about the life of this camera.